Monday, June 2, 2008

The Caesum interview

First of all, many thanks to Caesum for taking time to do the interview.

I knew Caesum from the Pyramid era.  I had written to him requesting for a link to be added to his site Electrica, which he kindly did. That link is now changed to Rankk.

Caesum is a familiar figure in the challenge community. In many challenge sites, you are likely to see him at or near the top of the ranking table.

Without much ado, let's begin the Caesum interview.

How would you describe your Rankk journey so far?
Well, I had a real burst of enthusiasm at the beginning, which is pretty much the same as anything I start. It's difficult to keep that enthusiasm going though without the feeling that solving levels is becoming a chore, a task, or simply another job. Sometimes you need to take a rest and walk away from the computer for a bit and come back at some later point.
I work with computer systems all day long, primarily writing SQL and building reports for people, so after a long day at work it's difficult to maintain any kind of enthusiasm to sit at a computer for even longer still. Some people seem to be able to solve problems from sites at work, unfortunately I do not have that opportunity although I can write the occasional short script in my lunchtime (although I can't run them....).

Anyway, I took my time with most of the Rankk levels, climbing slowly from one to the next, and savouring the climb, but also knowing that I'd pick up a bit of speed towards the end when only higher level ones were left. I then shot past a lot of people on the rankings because I was solving the easier high point levels.

Eventually you reach a point where there are still a few left to solve and you really slow down. I was left with about 30 at one point and then started a more thorough approach to the remaining ones, but I've not finished and there are one or two that I know how to solve but don't have the time at the moment.

So, in summary, I'd describe my journey like a rocket - starting out fast, suddenly shooting by and then coming to an abrupt halt!

A member is puzzled that you haven't beaten the Geb level. What do you say?
Naturally, the higher you get with any challenge site the more time you need to put in to solve the higher levels. The first part of the Geb challenge took about five minutes. The second part obviously needs some research but to be honest after a couple of hours of wandering the internet I became bored and let it be for a bit.

That about sums up many challenges for me, as soon as I become bored I start to lose interest. Take the proxy challenge, for example. It's easy to know what to do but it's so boring doing it and it can take so long that I quickly become bored and start to look around at other things.

If there's any feature that you would like to see added to Rankk, what would it be?
I've already made a few suggestions whilst chatting to Sphinx but if you want me to come up with something on the spot then I'll come up with the following: Many challenge sites in the past have purported to be about learning: "don't talk about the levels because you need to learn it." Cyberarmy was very much like this and yet most of these sites do not really have the resources for new people to learn anything. The result is that many newbies quickly get bored and leave and only a small core make progress and contribute to the community. So...... well, read the next section cos I'm using most of my new ideas there......

What are your plans for Electrica? 
Well, Electrica is currently undergoing a complete rewrite. Electrica had a few problems not least of which was an exploit released that pretty much made it all pointless. It had a couple of annoying bugs and it was really all down to the speed with which it was written in. The original Electrica took about two weeks to write, pretty much in full, and not much was added afterward for the next..... 5 years or so! ? I anticipate that the new site will be finished in September.

E2 will be based around sets of tutorials with accompanying levels, but don't expect it to be too easy. I've set out this time to make the new site far more secure. The database has been redesigned and I've already implemented a fair bit of it. The logging in and out system is written, the basic forums are written, some problems are done, some of the basic ranking work, etc. I still have an awful lot left to do though with some vast plans incorporating many things. Hopefully all of the features that I have planned will make it into the first release but pretty much everything is going to be different to the original. There are certainly more plans aimed at more of a community in the pipeline.

As to what will happen to the original, maybe something similar to the Rankk archive. It won't be possible to really port things over due to the extensive changes taking place. I had been feeling for a long time that it had become outdated and was in need of a major revamp, but due to real life problems of divorce and near bankruptcy, development came to a halt.

Anyway, the rewrite is also the main reason that I've pretty much stopped progress on Rankk for the moment.

Challenge sites tend to go through a path of Introduction, Growth, Maturity and Decline. What's your view on that?
You missed rebirth in your list. But, yes, I've seen many sites go this way. That's why I'm redesigning Electrica with hopefully more of a community focus, and why I'm also trying to make it more interesting for newbies to get into the challenge scene. Originally I wrote the challengers handbook with the soul aim of trying to get more people into the community as a whole, but this time I'm taking it one step further.

Do you consider yourself a hacker?
Well, let me tell you a little story. I went to University to do Pure Maths, and I was very good. I played about on Dec-PDP's and VAX systems and I started to get to know operating systems inside out. Then I got my girlfriend pregnant and found myself with no grant and had to leave. I had really good A-levels but I couldn't get a job anywhere, noone wanted to know because I hadn't finished my degree. Then I got a job in insurance and was made redundant two years later. (Shit, life had never been that easy for me - we lived on mostly potatoes for eight months but that's another story!).

Anyway, I got another job working in finance and they implemented this new system. To say the system was awful was an understatement and it was running on some mainframe and kept dropping you to an OS prompt, it was VMS at the time. Now I knew OS's inside out and sent someone a message on his terminal along the lines of 'this is crap, keeps dropping me out'. So he says 'how did you do that?' and I said 'oh just type.... and so on' and then people started saying 'what else can you do...'. I showed them how to play games on it, I showed them how to increase their privilege levels, I showed them how insecure the system was and I even put in a backdoor account with full privilege levels (like root).

So, everything was fine and then one day I was off and my boss walks into the office and says to my friend 'we're in deep trouble. Mrs x has forgotten her password and it'll take three weeks to reset if we phone the regional centre and we need to make some payments'. So he says 'I can do that.......' and so he did. The only problem was that Mrs x hadn't forgotten her password, she had forgotten her username and so my friend resets the password of Mrs x at some other office and then she makes millions of pounds of transfers from the wrong account.

So the end result was that everyone was in deep shit, and especially me. My boss took early retirement due to ill health. Everyone at work was interrogated. My friend and me were suspended for three months (nice holiday) and then summoned for the results. I was found guilty of running 23 privileged commands (I don't think the logs were that good as it was probably much more). Luckily my union rep saved the day and we both got permanent written warnings (the first in history!). My friend was at his terminal about a month later and nothing was working. He types a stupid message on the screen like 'i'm bored this isn't working' (bearing in mind this is a dumb terminal and connected to nothing) and the next thing he knows someone sees it over his shoulder, he's marched from the building and sacked on the spot.

After this I was real careful with computers at work, I've seen many people get away with far more than my friend was sacked for, and these days the whole scene has changed a lot.

I can tell you this though, if it wasn't for my own stupidity I'd probably have a damn better job now. It took me years to regain any kind of respectability and I'd made a major enemy of the HR person involved. There was no way of getting a good reference and she wanted me out of the organisation. I stuck my head down and worked hard for years gaining the respect of the finance and HR and several other directors. At one point I applied for a promotion and the original HR person tried to stop it. This ended up in a stand up argument with the finance director and guess what? She ended up taking an early retirement. Eventually the finance director tore up the bit of paper with my permanent written warning on it.

So, am I a hacker? Not anymore, in the sense of the word that most people understand but to me a hacker is someone that will solve one of your level5 programming levels in under half an hour through knowledge, rewriting and hacking together pieces of code with anything from asm to PHP, from C to Java, from Forth to Perl. A hacker can learn a new language whilst writing a program, and yeah that would still be me!

How is a typical day like for you in Nottingham?
A typical day? Depressing. I hate my job, it's boring, I need change to motivate me and keep me interested in what I do, I need to be continually learning. And at the moment I'm not doing that so work, travel, it's all tedious and boring. The only thing it does at the moment is pay the bills, and even this doesn't seem as important anymore after going through the events of the last couple of years.

One day you think you're doing alright and everything seems to be fine and you're going to live a good life, and drift into old age. The next you're bankrupt, no longer own a house and can no longer afford to buy one because prices have risen so much. The person that you trusted has seriously let you down and you'll probably never be back to where you once were. It makes you rethink about life and what it's all about.

So at the moment, I'm busy, busy rewriting my site, rethinking my life, and looking for an opportunity to do something better. I spend as much time as I can on my own computer doing exactly what I want to do, and at work I work whilst other people play on the internet.

Is there anything that you particularly like or dislike?

I like creativity, I like to see original things and originality, whether that's a new and original challenge level or whether it's an interesting piece of art. My favourite artists - Giger and Dali for example are both incredibly original and different. I like people that have had the guts and beliefs to do something different with their lives and not waste their time in a dead end job in a rat race.

What do I dislike? My job for one thing. To me it's always been a bit of a secondary thing anyway. For those who know me, and probably noone reading this will, I've always been a bit different. Long hair, biker, heavy rock. I listen to Slayer and ride an 1100cc bike. Perhaps not your picture of who I am!

What's your favourite sport?

Actually I hate sport. A better question would be 'what is my most disliked sport?' to which the answer would be football (soccer to you Americans....). I really do not see why so many people get so worked up about sport, it holds no interest for me whatsoever. I like to see a good competition between good players but I can as happily watch the WWE wrestlers which is 95% fake (not so different to some of the football players rolling about on the pitch crying like babies, i.e. fake).

Thanks to quangntenemy for helping with some of the interview questions.